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Why Do Gamers Undervalue Video Games so much?

Games are incredibly undervalued compared to other entertainment that people enjoy. Why is such a technologically capable industry selling an hour of entertainment for less than a quarter when it used to sell minutes at an arcade for that same price?

A few weeks ago, I went to Barcade for a friend’s birthday.  We wanted to relive our glory days so we found NBA Jam and got ready for some great two on two basketball hijinks.  We each had to pay $2 to play a full game.  We pumped our quarters in without thinking.  Each quarter in NBA Jam is set at 2 minutes so for $2 each ($8 for Barcade), we each played the game for 8 minutes.  Now granted we’re talking about a 20+ year old game, but it got me thinking about how much we currently devalue our games.  Why do we undervalue the games we love so much?  Why do games have to provide hours of entertainment for $10 or less?  I realize it’s not the 90s anymore and the number of arcades has diminished, but there’s no question that modern games are undervalued.  Not only compared to games of the past, but also compared to other forms of digital entertainment.

NBA Jam may have been manufactured on expensive cartridges for home consoles, but we’re living in the digital distribution age so that explains why games are so much more affordable right?  Not really.  There are plenty of other products that are distributed digitally that are more expensive and vastly more expensive when you take into account the length or cost per minute of the entertainment.  You can rent a new movie on Amazon for 24-48 hours for $3.99 to $5.99 per movie.  That’s on average 2 hours of entertainment or a fee of about $2-$3 per hour and you don’t even own the movie.  Meanwhile, the top sellers on Steam range from $4.99 - $29.99 and most indie games retail for $10 or less.  I like charts and data so here are some visuals to represent what I’m trying to get at:

  • For the purpose of the chart above, we used 2 hours as the average length of a movie and 45 minutes as the average length of an album.
  • We set the average time playing a game for all games to 20 hours and indie games to 10 hours.  There are plenty of games with longer and shorter play times, but those were some nice round numbers that made sense to me.
  • All data above is based on “original content” entertainment.  You can replay a game, song, or rewatch a movie dozens of times.  None of that is taken into account in the charts above.

We have this perception that games need to offer hours upon hours of entertainment for the same price (or cheaper) than movies and songs.  One of the things that the data above does not take into account is acquiring games at incredibly low bundle or pay-what-you-want prices.  To reflect how much value we get out of games we like (and don’t like), I pulled my own data from Steam and Xbox 360 over the past couple years.  It’s a good mix of recent AAA games and indie games:

I have a couple notes about my play history above.  First, I used $1 for the game price of any game that I got in a bundle or PWYW deal.  In most cases, I just beat the average of these deals and don’t remember the exact price I paid for them but it was likely much less than $1 each.  I didn’t want to feel bad about myself so I rounded up.  Next, I hated Black Ops 2 and resold it on eBay.  Nearly everything on this list I’ve beaten (i.e. seen all the original content) with the exception of Might & Magic (I’m very close) Monaco (near the end), Black Ops and the Banner Saga.  Also, do you ever really beat Spelunky?

Doing such an analysis of myself has really shown me how much value and entertainment I get out of my gaming habit.  The price I’m paying (per hour) to play these games is insanely low.  While the total cash I spend on games is quite high, the price that I’m paying per hour to play these games doesn’t even come close to the dollar amounts that I’m spending to see movies in theaters or that I paid to play NBA Jam for 8 minutes (~$15 per hour) at Barcade.

So again, I find myself asking: Why do we undervalue video games so much?  I would argue that it takes more effort to produce a great game with music, visuals, and game mechanics than it does an album of music.  Big blockbuster movies have similar if not smaller budgets then some of the biggest game franchises (Destiny, GTA, Call of Duty, etc), but we still expect hours upon hours more of content from games than our other types of entertainment.  God forbid if a game doesn’t deliver on playtime.  Why do indie games like Braid, Brothers, Gone Home, Little Inferno and more all have comments about how they’re too short? I know I’ve read way too many reviews that point to playtime and brevity as a negative to the overall score.  Meanwhile, in the film industry if a movie runs long, critics talk of bad editing or the boring narrative.  It’s absurd.  Isn’t a game that costs $10 and has an amazing 4 hours of content and no filler worth the price of admission?  It’s certainly worth as much as an album of music in my eyes.

Many of the games that have left lasting impressions on me over the past few years have been smaller independent games.  Looking at my data above, I actually feel really guilty about grabbing Gratuitous Space Battles and Atom Zombie Smasher in bundles.  Those games offered me hours of content at bargain level prices.  I certainly would have paid more for them.  Looking at the other indie games that I purchased, I can’t say that I feel ripped off based on the price and fun that I had with them.  Maybe I’m just at a point in my life where I want a shorter game experience.  I’m 31 and greatly appreciate a game that offers a quality experience with all the redundant parts edited out.  I look back fondly on games like Braid, World of Goo, and Brothers because of the great experiences that I had with them.  I was completely addicted until I beat those games, but then I was done.  Those game experiences have stuck with me over the years though, much like you continue to reminisce about a great movie or album.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to this problem.  Free2Play games, mobile game pricing, game bundles, etc are all part of the game industry now for better or worse. Marketing your game and getting people’s attention is one of the most important factors to a game’s success.  I guess I’m just trying to spread awareness.  I think it’s important for us as gamers to realize that developers cannot live off of selling their games for less than a dollar.  Shorter games need to be priced at $10+ so that developers big and small alike can continue making games. Don’t be a clown and complain about Journey being too short and then tell me The Hobbit is too long.  Nerd up and admit that gamers are spoiled.

Another thing that I haven’t really addressed is every gamers’ backlog.  Who doesn’t have a few games they haven’t even booted up yet but acquired during some sale or bundle?  A lot of times, I hear gamers talking about their backlog as a bad thing.  It’s not.  You can experience more diversity in gaming by taking a half-hour to an hour playing these games in your backlog.  The big multiplayer or roleplaying game that you spend all your time playing (Dota2, Hearthstone, Halo, CoD, Skyrim etc) will still be there when you finish trying something new for a few minutes.  Best of all that other game may be a hidden gem (see some of the indie games above) or at the very least will help you appreciate the games you typically spend most of your time playing.  Best of all, if you play some $5 indie game for an hour or two and move on – you’ve still gotten more entertainment value (and helped out a small developer) for your time.  Is there anything worse than spending $13 to see a bad movie in the theater?

If anyone would like to reach me directly, you can tweet me @mgnade or email me at mike at  I would love to see some other people's charts and data about games that have given them an amazing price per hour.  Feel free to share in the comments section below.

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